This is Part 1 of a weeklong tribute to Washington Cheesemaker Sally Jackson, who recently closed her cheesemaking operation after over 30 years in business. See Part II here; Part III here, Part IV here and Part V here.
Sally Jackson is a pioneer of the modern artisan cheesemaking movement in the United States. She started making cheese in 1979 in Okanogan County, Washington WAY before the practice became as fashionable as it is today…. way before many of us heard of cheese produced outside of Europe. And, I daresay, before many current adult cheese lovers were even born.
This was also well before the advent of farmers markets, so in order to sell cheese, Sally and husband Roger drove the cheeses to Seattle in search of a customer base. There, they managed to find a few forward thinking chefs and cheesemongers who purchased her goods. Soon Sally Jackson’s cheeses were being sold in New York City.
I was lucky enough to be able to visit the Jackson farm a few years ago. Sally was not keen on having her picture taken directly, but she allowed me to observe and photograph her while she made cheese. It was her practice to heat her milk (be it goat, cow or sheep’s milk) on a wood burning stove in her cheese room, a relic left over from when the farm didn’t have electricity. I watched her stir the curds with her hands; she knew when they were ready completely by feel.
After draining the curds, Jackson scooped the curds in ceramic molds. Later, once the cheeses were completely set, she’d wrap them in leaves – brown chestnut leaves for the sheep’s milk and cow’s milk cheeses and green grape leaves for the goat’s milk cheeses.
As the decades passed, Sally Jackson winnowed down her production (which once included all manner of fresh and aged cheeses and even ice cream) and focused solely on those familiar, gorgeous leaf wrapped wheels of sheep, goat and cow’s milk cheeses that most of us knew and love(d).
It is often said and written that Laura Chenel started the modern artisan cheese movement in America. As many know, I’m fond of mentioning that Sally Jackson started in the same year. While Jackson’s remote location and tiny production kept her out of the spotlight, Chenel’s proximity to San Francisco’s burgeoning food scene and Alice Waters’ now iconic Chez Panisse restaurant propelled her, and the artisan cheese movement, into the spotlight. But the point is not who came first, the point is really to say that we’re all the beneficiaries of the efforts of these two women, and other visionary people who have devoted their lives and careers to making cheese in those early days.
So the next time you look in a cheese case and see dozens upon dozens of locally made cheeses, think about how far the artisan cheese industry has come in the past several decades. Remember the pioneers of the movement, like Sally Jackson.
Tomorrow: Part II with Steve Jenkins of Fairway Market in New York.